Teaching mathematics

By: Franco Cabral - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | November 21,2021 - 09:00 AM

After four long years of being a scholar, I finally found earlier this year that my mission, aside from being a scientist for the nation, is to educate others. When I was first presented with the opportunity to teach mathematics to a small group of indigent students, I was initially very hesitant. After some thinking, I finally consented, carried by the thought that I was doing something good for humankind.

I came to my first (online) lecture not knowing what to expect, since it was my first time stepping so far outside my comfort zone. It turned out that my students had different capabilities in mathematics and were in different stages of their life, with the eldest about the same age as I am.

There was one thing consistent among all of them, though: their motivation to learn. As I held more and more lectures, I noticed how they were all genuinely excited to learn from me, and the reality that there are students like mine who have so much potential to succeed but cannot obtain the education they deserve was given a whole new dimension. This view was particularly strengthened when I learned that they were merely given “exercises” to do and that there wasn’t anyone who taught them the theory required to answer those exercises. These observations urged me to rapidly improve my teaching so that I could give them the best possible lessons, and so they could make the most out of my service.

My experience with teaching further strengthened my already existent belief that it isn’t usually the students’ fault if they aren’t achieving, but their teachers’ and the previous education they received. This is especially true for a subject like mathematics, where everything builds on each other, and gaps in previous topics can easily cause students to fall behind. Such was the case with my students: When I first taught them, I was hearing algebra when in fact most of them still struggled with basic fractions. I sought to remedy this, reminding them that mastery in foundational principles is necessary to do good mathematics.

This situation particularly spoke to me as an aspiring physicist who values problem-solving and the understanding of concepts as two integral components to learning. I’ve noticed that most of the time, students are instructed to simply memorize, memorize, memorize, when in fact it should be understand, understand, understand. For fields like mathematics, it becomes necessary to solve increasingly difficult problems since easy problems are simply ineffective as a tool for learning. I saw my first opportunity to teach actual students as a chance to try applying these principles and to test if they are indeed effective. It was my chance to build on the qualities my already amazing teachers in the Philippine Science High School have shown me. Now, I wasn’t the one listening. I was the one teaching.

I then set to work, first discussing the basics to strengthen my students’ foundations. I mainly worked through examples while explaining my thought process to teach them the concepts. I also gave them rules to remember, always making sure to carefully explain why and how those rules might arise, and different ways of thinking about them. I would then give them exercises to answer after every lesson, then we would discuss the problems as a class. I was lucky enough to have such a small class size; it allowed me to talk with them freely while I was teaching, and they could easily talk to me as well if they couldn’t understand something.

It would be dishonest to say that my first teaching experience went flawlessly and as planned. One particular blunder early on was that I would simply teach them all the required concepts in one go and then proceed to give them a mixed bag of problems about what I taught. I realized that my approach was very much inappropriate when I noticed that they were unable to solve the problems, and forgot most of what I had taught them in a week or so. It was a learning experience for me as much as it was for them: I learned how hard it is to be a teacher, and that a good teacher must adapt to fit the needs of their students.

I still teach my students in Cebu weekly, and it makes me proud seeing how we’ve gone from discussing integers to now starting with basic algebra in the span of a few months. I guess the satisfaction a teacher gets from seeing their students mature is enough to keep them going. It certainly is the case for me.

This experience has made me more thankful for the education I receive at the Philippine Science High School, and the presence of all of the teachers who so passionately teach their subjects. Academically privileged as I have been, it becomes easy to take things for granted and not see the full picture. My experience with my students in Cebu was an eye-opener, and the one thing that inspired my desire to teach others. I now believe the knowledge one gains is useless if not shared with others, and it is nothing short of selfish to keep it to oneself.

I hope to continue to be of service to my fellow Filipinos in some way through teaching, while also pushing out cutting-edge research in physics for the advancement of knowledge.

* * * 

Franco Cabral, 16, is a Grade 12 student and aspiring physicist from the Philippine Science High School (PSHS)-Main Campus. This essay, originally titled “Student and teacher,” won in the Lead to Serve essay-writing contest in the category “For Whom Am I A Scholar” sponsored by PSHS Batch 1979 through their Cleofe M. Bacungan Servant Leadership Endowment Fund.

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TAGS: indigent students, Philippine Science High School, scholar, scientist, teach mathematics

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